Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …
As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.
Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)? Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours. But here’s the part that likely does apply to you. We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out. And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.
What does the blind spot feel like? What does denial feel like? It feels like a numbness. It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s. It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips. It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what. It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t. They even laugh at how obvious it is! And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth. There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.
Which is why many of us write. We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.
Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?
Because I loved her and she was suffering. She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me. I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her. She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with. I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze. I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws. I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated. And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious. And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.
Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean. Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time. The old denial wants to subsume me.
I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom. And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity. And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.
What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself. What preposterous things would you know are true? You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl. You are the tilted mirror she needs. Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her. Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong. You’re bad. You don’t know what reality is. Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.
This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month. Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.